First Impressions: Indian cuisine at Taj a welcome addition

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at .

Above the buffet table inside the month-old Taj Indian restaurant is a mural depicting a traditional Sikh ceremony of costumed dancers and musicians. In the background is the Harmandir Sahib Golden Temple – for Sikhs, an iconic place of worship – built in the 1500s of white marble overlaid with gold leaf, and rebuilt in 1764. It’s in the town of Amritsar, the spiritual center of the Sikh religion, in the Punjab region of India.

It’s indicative of the heritage of Taj co-owners Bobby Singh and his cousin, Jay Masuta. It also speaks to a characteristic of the cuisine, which is specific to the Punjab – “spicy.” Some would say “hot.”

Singh owned Raj Indian Cuisine in Berkeley from 1993 to 2003 before moving to Sacramento to open a clothing business and grocery store.

How did he get back into the biz? “A really good cook I’ve known for a while called and said he was free, and I decided to look up (a space for) a restaurant,” Singh said. “One day my wife and I came here for dinner when it was the Sher-e-Punjab restaurant. After dinner, we were driving out of the parking lot when the cook phoned to say there was a restaurant at Fair Oaks and Marconi for sale – the Sher-e-Punjab. I made a U-turn, came back and talked with the owner.”

If Taj is successful, the plan is to “open a second restaurant downtown,” Singh said. Business has been good so far, in part because of an increasing number of catering jobs.

Menu: What imbues Indian cooking with such an array of distinctive flavors are the sauces and the combinations of spices, both much in evidence here. The standards – chicken and fish curries, lamb vindaloo, chicken and vegetable pakora, lentil soup – are well-organized on the 84-item menu, with 11 specific vegetarian entries. House specialties include chicken tikka masala, tandoori salmon and lamb korma (coconut-cashew sauce).

Price point: Lunch and dinner are at bargain prices, from $3 to $15 for well-handled, freshly prepared dishes in big portions, using all organic vegetables. A bowl of tasty saag paneer (creamed spinach with homemade cheese, $10) served five diners nicely. Bowls of basmati rice were seemingly self-replenishing ($2.50).

Ambiance: For now, there isn’t much, though Singh said more artwork and decorations are coming to supplement the mural and a painting of the Taj Mahal. High ceilings and massive windows help, but still the place has a retro feel (could it be the gigantic booths with pendant lamps?) despite an extensive remodel. The ghost of the Lyons restaurant – the tenant before Sher-e-Punjab – seems to linger.

Drinks: A beer-wine license should be in place in two months, Singh said. Meanwhile, mango juice, Asian chai with seven herbs, and mango lassi (mango and rosewater blended into a yogurt drink) are fine choices.

Service: Fast, professional and attentive without being intrusive.

First impressions: Taj is a welcome addition to the restaurant-hungry Carmichael-Fair Oaks area. Flavors were abundant and spicing was relatively mild (though the heat can be cranked up), but we kept looking for a “wow!” factor.

We tasted a medley of items, including vegetable pakora (cauliflower and other veggies dipped in garbanzo-bean batter and fried), lamb curry (with surprisingly chewy meat), and chicken tikka masala (tender fowl in a soothing sauce). No Indian meal is complete without naan, leavened flatbread traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven. Choose from 10, including one stuffed with minced lamb. A basket of oven-war assorted naan (plain, garlic and onion) was $6.50.

We used the excellent dipping sauces liberally – yogurt-mint, cucumber-yogurt, mango chutney and spicy tamarind. The fiery onion relish was followed by many glasses of iced water. “I keep that one for customers who like really spicy food,” Singh said. Two ice creams – mango and “Indian spices” with a blizzard of coconut powder – were cooling cappers.

Try it if: Indian food is on your list of go-to cuisines, and if you enjoy experimenting at ethnic restaurants.

Forget it if: Spicy food is not your thing, or if your appetite isn’t ready for a spread.